Moms tend to feel guilty for all sorts of things. They feel guilty for working full-time or part-time. They feel guilty for not breastfeeding or for stopping too soon. They feel guilty for not being able to join their child’s field trip. Again. They feel guilty for taking time for themselves. For not cooking from scratch. For the dirty clothes in the corner and the dirty dishes in the sink. For not making enough money. For making mistakes. For being too tired. For anything.
As psychotherapist Krysta Dancy, MA MFT, said, guilt “begins in pregnancy and childbirth — all the different ways to give birth — flows through infancy — feeding choices, sleeping philosophies — and never lets up.”
And even though moms do a lot for their families, “it never feels like enough,” said Catherine O’Brien, MA, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Sacramento, Calif. who specializes in working with moms and new parents.
For some moms, guilt stems from their own sky-high expectations. Many of O’Brien’s clients are fixated on recreating everything their moms did. Others are hyper-focused on doing the complete opposite.
Moms also feel guilty when they compare themselves to other parents. They might compare themselves to their friends or even to strangers. The always put-together mom at the park with the neatly dressed, perfectly behaved kids. The mom at your child’s school who’s constantly volunteering and baking homemade cookies. The coworker who seems to have time for everything.
“Ultimately, mom guilt is a thief,” said Dancy, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Roseville, Calif, where she specializes in women’s issues, including parenting transitions and birth trauma.
“It steals joy from the mothering experience.” Because when you’re so focused on judging what you’re doing and doubting yourself, you focus less on the present moment. You miss out on connecting with your kids, she said.
You also miss out on connecting with other moms. “When we judge ourselves, we can’t help but judge others. This has led to, I believe, some of the most disconnected moms ever seen. At a time when we really need each other, we are hiding in fear of condemnation.”
Recognize your strengths
“Not every mom is going to be good at everything,” O’Brien said. No one is good at everything. Every person has different talents, abilities, skill sets, and gifts to offer.
“But there are so many things that [moms] provide on a regular basis that only we can do so well.” Acknowledge those things. Celebrate them.
Find a compassionate community
Dancy stressed the importance of spending face-to-face time with other moms. Because guilt breeds in isolation. O’Brien suggested checking out local mom groups, library story time and meetups. For instance, maybe there’s a mom group focused on something you love, such as hiking, writing or photography.
Also, local hospitals have their own support groups or lists of groups in the area, and you can always check Facebook for groups, she said.
This is hard for moms. But as O’Brien said, “you can’t tap a dry well.” Not only is reconnecting to yourself vital for your own health and well-being. But you’re also a better mom when you rest and recharge. Self-care is personal. But it might look like taking a walk, meeting a friend for coffee or taking a yoga class, O’Brien said.
Be fully present
“Part of mom guilt is the idea that you need to be with your children at all times,” Dancy said. “Not only is this untrue, it is damaging to both mother and child.” Instead, the key is to be fully present when you are with your children.
O’Brien suggested picking something small that you can do every day. Maybe it’s giving your children a bath or reading them a bedtime story. Maybe it’s rocking your baby to sleep. Maybe it’s making a simple breakfast or dinner together.
“That way, no matter how hard the rest of the day is, or how distracted you are by everything else you need to get done in the day, you have that time and those memories of connecting with your kids.” Even 15 minutes makes a big difference. And “your kids will notice.”
Focus on your top priorities
“Mom guilt is often born out of wanting to do too much,” Dancy said. “The reality is, you are only one person.” Dancy encourages her clients to pick their top priorities and let the rest slide. For instance, she might ask clients these questions: “When your children are grown, what are the top three things you hope they say about their childhood? The top three things you hope they say about you as a mom? The top three things you hope they learned from your parenting?”
Then together they translate the answers into priorities and a larger plan. Sometimes, they also write down the “family priorities,” and put it in a visible place.
The key is to have a manageable and actionable number. Because as Dancy said, “to choose to do everything is to ultimately choose to do nothing. I emphasize purposeful choices.”
Again, Dancy stressed the importance of face-to-face connection. “It’s easy to believe everyone is doing it ‘perfectly’ when you are looking at snapshots of Pinterest-worthy parties online.”
However, “in person, it turns out that other moms are often just doing their best and bumbling through—just like you are.” When we connect and share our stories, we remind ourselves that we are human. And we give ourselves permission to be fallible, to make mistakes, to have weaknesses, to be real and 3-dimensional.
“Accepting our humanness is integral to releasing guilt,” Dancy said.